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Great Adventures: Mungo Park

Pat Kinsella hunts out a Scottish explorer who risked all in pursuit of the route of Africa’s Niger River

MUNGO PARK THE ROAD TO TIMBUKTU

TRAVEL JUNKIE Park’s travels took him to places no European had ever been before, seeking adventure and reputation
BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY X3

“Park set off along the Niger from Sansanding in a customised canoe, never to be seen again”

On 19 November 1805, as he stood by the banks of the African river that would ultimately define his life, 34-year-old Mungo Park must have realised that his quest to unlock the enigma of the Niger would now likely end with his death.

Already he’d buried his brother-in-law, along with many more men. Of the 44 Europeans who had enthusiastically joined his expedition mere months earlier, only five remained – and one of those was out of his mind. Mungo’s own mind, however, was made up. “I shall set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt,” he wrote to the head of the Colonial Office. “ Though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger.”

The legendary city of Timbuktu was considered a source of wealth as early as the 15th century. It’s at the bottom of this map, on the banks of the (very linear) Niger River
GETTY X3, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY X1

The prescient letter was entrusted to his Mandingo guide, Isaaco, who transported it back to The Gambia for transmission to Britain. And then Park – accompanied by four European soldiers, a native guide and three slaves – set off in a canoe along the Niger from Sansanding, modern-day Mali, never to be seen again.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Inside, Tudor historian Alison Weir uncovers one of the most "grievous miscarriages of justice" in English history, we find out why the Vietnam War was doomed from the start, and explore the secret life of Albert Einstein, from his rebellious childhood to his scandalous affair.